Sunday, November 30, 2008

A big update

Hey, to those that still keep track of this corner of the blogosphere. I've been slack lately due to a number of reasons. The end of the marking period just passed, which meant a good amount of extra work. I also was awfully sick on Thanksgiving, running a 100+ fever and having an awful stomach issue (which is why I still haven't gotten around to a Top Chef Digestion for last week). Fortunately for me, my mom is awesome and is making a big meal for today, with all of my favorite foods and sides and dessert. Who says Thanksgiving needs to be on Thursday?

The other issue I've been dealing with over the last week is that my doctor told me my cholesterol is rather high and I need to make some changes in my diet in order to bring that number back down to normal (which should also have a positive effect on my higher-than-normal blood pressure). To that end, I've been doing a bunch of reading and a bunch of research on how to adjust my diet. Here's what I've discovered about the way I eat

1) As much as I profess my love for bacon, I really only eat it every now and again. When it comes to eating meat, I tend to stick to lean cuts, things like chicken breasts, sirloins, pork loin. A big thing item I'm going to have to limit is sausage, whether its sweet Italian or Polish.
2) I eat eggs quite a bit during the week for breakfast. Cooked in a big pat of butter. That's going to be altered for sure, probably going to switch to egg whites, which I am a fan of.
3) More fiber. This is something that is difficult for me, because I don't eat many vegetables, but I'm going to work on eating more whole grains. I just spent an hour in the supermarket reading nutritional labels looking for foods high in soluble fiber. I picked up some Kashi bars and some Wasa crackers, which provide a big fiber punch in a small package.
4) Eating fruits and vegetables. Fruits aren't a problem, and I'm committed to eating my apple every day when I get home from work. Vegetables...I'm still trying to find a way I can hide the flavor of many of them. Blech.
5) Exercise. It starts again tomorrow.

So yeah, that's the scoop. So hopefully, along with lowering my cholesterol, I'll be losing weight, too.

Maybe not the most fun post for you all to read, my friends, but I'm trying here!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Adventures with Roux

As another batch of gumbo simmers away on the stovetop, I'd like to reflect, for a moment, on the numbness in my right arm caused by 45 minutes of uninterrupted stirring, trying to make sure my roux didn't burn.

For those unsure of just roux is or what it does, it's easy: heat equal parts of flour and oil over medium heat, while stirring continuously. Then it's just a matter of cooking until it reaches the color you want:

Clockwise from top is a white roux, a blonde roux and a brown roux. White roux is used when making things like bechamel sauce when you're cooking macaroni and cheese. Blonde roux is used for cooking...well...I honestly don't know. Brown roux is used in old-school things like espagnole sauce, but is used commonly in Cajun cuisine.

The thing about roux is this: the darker it gets, the hotter it becomes. When I was stirring up the roux when it was at the white roux stage, a couple of drops would splatter on my knuckles, with no harm done. However, by the time I was getting into the blond/brown transition, every tiny drop was absolute agony! Needless to say, my stirring became much more deliberate and careful.

The other problem with making dark roux is the fact that it takes forever, which has led to my arm being numb and my right hand barely able to type because it's so cramped up from holding a wooden spoon. Not fun.

On a side note, I reread my Top Chef recap from yesterday, and I realized I need to clean up a few things, namely repeating words in the same sentence, and fizzling out at the end of the post. I'll lock it down better next week.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Top Chef Week 2 Digestion...

...aka "How to Step Into Obvious Pitfalls"

Last week, Team Rainbow was whittled down to the Rainbow Duo (thanks Wow) when inexperienced Patrick was sent packing. Richard the Teddy Bear was bummed, and Spray Tan Ariane went on about how she deserved to stay because she's older. Spare us your whining!

I would like to, at this point, declare that Fabio needs to get as much camera face-time that the editors can give him. He said some sort of crazy saying about slaying a dragon and rescuing a princess...and all I could think about was him wearing a red cap and some overalls, jumping and breaking blocks with his head. More on this later, because it's time for.......Quickfire Challenge!

Joined by Donatella Arpaia (she of David Burke & Donatella), Padma declares that the challenge will involve a food that New Yorkers love and spend bucketloads of cash on each year. Immediately I think hot dogs and pizza, and lo-and-behold, I am dogs! They also bring in some famous lady from Brooklyn who has a hot dog cart, and it is supposed to be head-to-head judging against her hot dog, but it is simply for novelty effect, nothing more.

Here's my take on the Quickfire:
  • Putting something in the middle of rice or a wrapper does not make it sushi or a summer roll, Jill and Eugene (who let me down here, I think he's really talented)
  • Swedish Chef and Dan (aka Chops) all made boring dogs. Something inspiring and original was needed, not making a hot dog panini or topping it with sauerkraut.
  • Radhika "I don't only cook Indian food" served up Indian-style food again with her kebab-style dog. I don't mind if she goes with the flavors and techniques that she grew up with, but don't come out right away and say "I don't want to be known just for cooking Indian food"
  • First, FabioBros says "I love hot dog! Do I know how make hot dog? I not know how make hot dog. I know how make sausage!", then he eats a mushroom to turn into SuperFabioBros. Excellent - keep talking. He makes what sounds to me like the best of the bunch: andouille sausage with goat cheese and roasted pepper. Damn, I might just have to make that for myself (or at least attempt to)
  • Jamie goes with a pork/beef combo, and ends up with a bit of ground bone in the dog. Epic fail.
In the end, despite my displeasure with her, Radhika takes the win and gets immunity. Lucky for her...

So the Elimination Challenge is this: the entire team needs to make a 3 course lunch menu in the "New American" style: old-school dishes made with a cultural twist, peasant fare made with primo ingredients, things like that. Here's some reflections from that:
  • KitchenKen (Jeff) helps "the children" (his words, arrogant ass) divide up into three groups: apps, entree, dessert. I am shocked that people were actually volunteering for dessert - usually it is the kryptonite of Top Chefdom
  • Hosea wants to make a Dungeness crab salad, but it is summertime, and Dungeness season does not start until November, so all the have is canned crab (inward cringe). Hosea decides (unwisely) to attempt his dish with canned crab. Now I can pull off using canned crab when I'm making crabcakes for my friends and family at my house. However, his dish wasa delicate crab salad dressed with citrus and vanilla, where crab is supposed to be the showstopper. Not looking good for the Prophet.
  • SuperFabioBros orders the butcher just to give him the entire untrimmed filet and he'll butcher it himself. Right on! However, I'm worried because his planned carpaccio isn't really "cooked" per se.
  • Eugene is no-nonsense. I like his style, and I'm rooting for him and his deconstructed meatloaf. I also like Jamie's style as well - chilled sweet corn soup sounds tasty.
  • Jill decides she wants to make an asparagus quiche, which is tasty for Sunday brunch fare, but is not "New American". Compounding the issue is she decides to make her quiche with ostrich eggs. I've never cooked with ostrich eggs, but why wouldn't you make your quiche with chicken eggs? Not a good plan.
  • SprayTan Ariane is bemoaning that she is not a baker or a pastry chef. Why would you volunteer to make dessert (a lemon meringue martini? what is that?) if you're not a pastry chef?
Chef Tom Ripken Jr. comes in, and SURPRISE! Not only are the cheftestants cooking at Craft, but the diners are going to be 50 Top Chef rejects! One such reject proudly announces that he doesn't cook with animal fat or butter in his restaurant, which is precisely the reason why you were not chosen in the first place! Tom is going to expidite and be in the kitchen with the people when they're busy getting their dishes together.

There were no issues to speak of during service, so here's a rundown of what everybody whipped up:
  • Jamie: chilled sweet corn soup w/ mint and chili oil - I'm not a big fan of corn, but it looked tasty
  • SuperFabioBros: carpaccio with traditional accompaniments, and a cool olive "ravioli" made from mixing olive puree with sodium alginate then submerging it in a calcium salt solution. It creates a "skin" around the liquid puree which then bursts with a little bit of pressure. A really cool technique, and it made the dish.
  • The Prophet: Canned cab salad with vanilla citrus, avocado & mango - failed on many levels, mainly because of the canned crab
  • Leah: Scallops on Potatoes - not much mentioned, sort of boring
  • Melissa: Avocado & peaches, grilled - BORING
  • Jill: Ostrich egg asparagus quiche - awful and uninspiring
  • Eugene: Deconstructed meatloaf - looked promising, but reports were poor. The presentation was poor.
  • Swedish Chef: Halibut with champagne sauce and ravioli - no complaints, I'd definitely order it at a restaurant.
  • KitchenKen: Chicken with chorizo spoonbread. I liked the presentation alot with the little cast iron pot. I don't order chicken at restaurants, but that looked tasty.
  • Alex: Pork tenderloin with mushroom demi - boring and uninspired
  • Rahdika: Avocado mousse with chocolate wontons - this looked absolutely terrible. Avocado mousse? That sounds absolutely terrible.
  • Chops: Ricotta poundcake with a strawberry-lemon coulis. Awesome, especially since he'd never made it before. Looked awesome and would definitely order it.
  • Spray Tan Ariane: Lemon meringue martini - she ran around having everyone try it, they all told her that it was a little too sweet...gamesmanship since they all knew it was awful. Padma spit it out!
  • Richard the Teddy Bear: Banana bread with peanut butter and banana brulee - I agree with Gail, this was more of an afternoon snack than a New American dessert.
  • Crazy Carla: Apple tart with cheddar - the tart was excellent, the cheddar looked out of place, even though I love apple pie with cheddar cheese. She was worried about her pastry crust, came out excellent.
Tom tasted all the dishes in front of the chefs, talk about intimidation. I like the new method of calling the winners and losers into the Judge's Table - creates some more suspense. SuperFabioBros wins the day with his amazing olive alginate balls. Jill can't mount a good defense (or a coherent sentence for that matter) for her dish, and gets her knives packed.

My front-runners (in no particular order): SuperFabioBros, Jamie, Swedish Chef

Next week: FOO FIGHTERS!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Top Chef: NYC!

Last night was the premiere of Season 5 of Top Chef, this year taking place in New York City, which has got to be the greatest place to eat in the world simply because of the variety of food you can get (a theme which was used effectively in this opening episode) I'm telling you, you can get ANYTHING in New York, which makes it a very interesting backdrop for this season.

I'd like to just make a disclaimer out there that this is the first time I'm doing something like a TV show recap, and I've learned from the best blogger I know, Mrs. Meggie Wow, but bear with me - my notes are practically illegible!

Here's a quick rundown of some of the cheftestants and my first impressions:
Fabio: First time in NYC, funny accent
Jamie: Yet another local/seasonal American cuisine gal, founding member of Team Rainbow
Eugene: Dishwasher turned chef, will make Bourdain proud
Jeff: Narcissistic tool. I have no time for him. His new name is Kitchen Ken. Ass.
Radhika: Don't pigeon-hole me because I'm Indian in descent!
Lauren: Hot Army wife
Ariane: Why New Jersey folks have terrible reputations. Awful spray tan, awful accent.
Danny: Total meathead, in the same mold as Joey and Howie from Season 3
Patrick: School kid who barely needs to shave, and I'm expecting recipes straight from the CIA textbook
Stefan: Born in Finland, that's close enough to Sweden for me. Bork bork bork!
Richard: Founding member of Team Rainbow, already cracking jokes
Leah: Girls Don't Cry!!!

Padma quotes a little bit of the Chairman ("If I can make it there...") and Tom already starts up with the tough talk, and it's time for an immediate QuickFire. All the cheftestants react with shock...and I am forced to wonder whether or not they have seen this show before. Fools!

The Quickfire is broken into 3 stages, with the top finishers from each stage moving on to the actual show. The first task was to peel 15 apples with a paring knife, which is no small task considering the advent of the vegetable peeler (Tom gleefully announces "They'll be here for a while!"). Someone gashes a thumb (Richard, I believe) but keeps on peeling. Eventually, the Swedish Chef calls out he's done, gets his work OK'd by Tom, and gets immunity from elimination. He handles it in a most non-humble manner. Eventually 8 others finish. The 2nd stage was to brunoise some apples - eep! Brunoise means perfect little 1/8" cubes - which means all those lovely curves need to be squared off. Not the easiest thing to do, as demonstrated by Jill who gets her work dismissed by Tom...but eventually all but 4 of the cheftestants accomplish this task.

The last stage was to take some random ingredients and make Tom a dish with apples in it. The one he likes the least packs their knives and goes home. Nothing notable here, except that Radhika, for not wanting to be pigeon-holed for making Indian cuisine, makes CHUTNEY. Really? Chutney? Whatever, Tom liked it, and sent Lauren (with a boring salad of apples, spinach, pears, bleu cheese and bacon) home. Good riddance, that's a salad straight out of Better Homes and Gardens (not that I'm mocking that magazine, I just expect better from a potential TOP CHEF).

So its time for the Elimination Challenge, and (gasp) it's time to draw knives! They all draw out neighborhoods around NYC, which correspond to ethnic cuisines (I called it as soon as they pulled Brighton Beach). It's a head-to-head cook-off, creating a dish inspired by the neighborhood and the ethnic foods. However, before they go out the next day, we get to see them all giddy and drinking in their new pad, and already the Swedish Chef is pissing poeple off by being all arrogant and a soccer fan (A vinaigrette is not an emulsion? Suuuuuuure, says the chem major). Team Rainbow is all giddy!

Here's a list of some stuff that I noticed during the shopping/cooking, taken straight from my notebook.
- Carla (who is tall and scaring me) is asking her spirit guides for knowledge in Russion cuisine
- Ariane has no clue about anything in Middle Eastern food
- Jeff (aka Kitchen Ken) is cocky because he's from Miami and knows Latino food
- Patrick took a course in Asian cuisine
- Danny is a meathead who uses football metaphors for cooking
- Neither Alex or Eugene have cooked Indian food, which smells disaster
- Jeff wants to use lots of garnishes (never a good idea, because you either run out of time of forget 1 or 2 of them)
- I didn't know anyone could murder an animal that was already dead...until I saw Carla totally destroy a smoked fish
- Ariane choosing farro is going to be a poor choice because it takes longer to cook than rice does (an eerily prophetic note, as it leads her to be in the bottom two later on)
- Rice noodles can be very gummy, if you wanted soba noodles, you should've bought soba noodles, Patrick.

So the judges come in, with Padma, Tom, Gail Simmons (who, despite her dress, is still a cutie) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the greatest chefs alive. Here's what each cheftestant prepared, briefly. You can follow along with pictures at Rate the Plate by Bravo:
Middle Eastern: Ariane makes lamb with farroto and dates, Swedish Chef makes lamb with hummus & a beef skewer. Farroto is undercooked (duh!), Swedish chef wins
Greek: Richard makes lamb sliders (which sound absolutely delicious), Jamie makes deconstructed Greek salad (I hate things "deconstructed" - they taste good together!). Richard overcooks his lamb (doh!) so he loses.
Jamaica: Jill makes jerk scallops, radhika makes jerk halibut. Jill wins.
Latino: Fabio makes pork with mango sauce, Kitchen Ken makes pork with beans and rice. Kitchen Ken wins.
Russian: Hosea makes trio of smoked fish (some of which he smoked himself, excellent technique), Carla makes smoked trout cakes (which was all she could do after absolutely shredding the fish). Tom the Salt King finds her dish underseasoned, so she loses.
Italian: Leah makes farroto with snapper, Melissa serves rib-eye with tomato sauce (which sounds like a bad Italian special at my local pizzaria). Again, Melissa does not add enough salt for Tom's palate, so she gets the L.
Chinatown: Both dishes are terrible, in both my opinion and the judges. Patrick makes a glazed salmon with bok choy straight out of an "Asian Food for Dummies" book, Danny makes a poached chicken salad. Both were boring, but Patrick's moreso.
Indian: Alex makes lamb chops with a spicy ragout, Eugene makes more lamb with a yogurt sauce. The judges are really impressed, but Eugene gets the win for making a traditional Indian dish without realizing he was making it. Not sure if I agree, but I wasn't there tasting the food.

In the stew room, Fabio says what everyone who has been watching Top Chef for years knows already - Tom wants his food salty. I've watched them dump big pinches of salt into food over the years, and I am convinced it is just his own personal taste to like his food salty. Everyone who is on the show should know this!

Swedish Chef gets the win over Eugene and Leah for his duo of grilled meats. Not awful, but I prefered Eugene's I think. The bottom 2 are Patrick and Ariane, Patrick for not showing any originality or vision, Ariane for just not knowing. In the end, Patrick's inexperience cannot be denied, and so he is told to pack his knives and go! Goodbye!

It's too early to name a few frontrunners, so I won't. Next week will better I'm sure, in terms of my recap. I hope you enjoy this one!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tomato Soup and Top Chef

Is there anything better than tomato soup and a grilled cheese? I think not. When the temperature gets chilly and the sun sets ridiculously early, there's not much better. That's why I made it tonight for dinner (and had enough leftover to freeze)

Also, before I give you my soup recipe (adapted, of course, from an America's Test Kitchen recipe), let me remind everyone who reads this wonderful blog that tomorrow night is the season premiere of Top Chef on Bravo. I'll be providing commentary and opinions and generally trying to emulate my awesome friend Meghann, her blog and her reviews of Project Runway. I hope I am as good of a writer as she is!

Recipe after the jump!

Cream of Tomato Soup
2 28 oz cans of whole tomatoes in juice
1.5 tbsp dark brown sugar
4 tbsp unsalted butter
4 large shallots, minced
1 tbsp tomato paste
pinch of ground allspice
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1.75 c chicken broth
0.5 c heavy cream
2 tbsp brandy
salt and cayenne pepper

Preheat to 450, and line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. In a strainer over a bowl, push the seeds out of the tomatoes, letting the juice fall into the bowl, and straining the rest of the juice. (You should end up with 3 cups) Place the tomatoes on the baking sheet in a single layer and sprinkle with brown sugar. Roast in the oven until all liquid is evaporated, about 30 minutes. Let the tomatoes cool.

While the tomatoes are roasting, heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until foamy. Add the shallots, tomato pate and allspice, cover and cook (sometimes stirring) until the shallots are soft (8 min or so). Add the flour and stir constantly for about 30 seconds, then whisk in the broth in a gradual stream. Add in the reserved tomato juice and the roasted tomatoes, bring to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Strain the mixture into a bowl and rinse out the saucepan. Puree the solids in a food processor with 1 cup of the strained liquid. Put the strained liquid and the puree back into the saucepan, add the cream, stir and heat on low until hot. Off the heat, add the brandy. Season to taste with the salt and cayenne and with a delicious grilled cheese sandwich.

*Note: When I made this tonight, I only ended up with about 2 cups of juice from the tomatoes, so I used water to bring the volume up to 3 cups, and I added an extra tbsp of tomato paste...came out delicious. DO NOT be afraid of the cayenne pepper. You literally need a pinch per serving, and it really brings out the tomato flavor, without adding any amount of heat or spice.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Football Sunday!

So when it's time to have people over for an afternoon of football watching and relaxing, here's how my thought process tends to go:

1) Lots of snacks to whet everyone's appetite before serving food
2) Make something that is forgiving in terms of cooking error and cooking time
3) Make one main dish that I am positive everyone who is coming will like
4) Make something that can be served family-style

So, planning on having 10 people over, here was the menu as I planned it:

Veggies, potato chips and dip
Guacamole and tortilla chips (as I knew my friends would be demanding of the guac)
Hot artichoke dip
Chicken wings (honey BBQ and buffalo)
Pulled pork w/ sandwich slaw

Needless to say, we ended up only having 5 people over, so I ended up not making the hot artichoke dip, nor did I make the chicken wings. However, I presented a delicious spread of yellow & red peppers, carrots, celery and broccoli, with some old-school sour cream-Knorr vegetable soup dip. Also, the guacamole made its appearance and its equally quick disappearance, thanks to my wife and friends that can never get enough of it - they inhaled 6 avocado's worth in about a minute or two. It was then time for the main course - the magical animal!

I am a huge fan of slow-cooked shredded meat, and pulled pork is my absolute favorite. Normally, my recipe involves a dry rub and smoking and a finish in the oven and a long rest. Also inherent in my recipe are two sauces, a seriously spicy no-nonsense vinegar/sugar/ketchup/cayenne that gets mixed through the meat, and a thick and spicy BBQ sauce that goes on the buns. Topped with a sandwich slaw, it's the most delicious stuff in the world.

Looking for a recipe that I could make in the oven, I flipped through my CIA Professional Chef textbook, and I found an extremely simple recipe that looked delicious, and came out even better. It also had recipes for two sauces that were similar to my sauces. I decided to roll the dice and violate Bonnie's Rule of Cooking #1. Everyone were fans!

Recipes after the jump.

Carolina Style Pulled Pork
12 lb of pork shoulder
1 oz of salt (don't be scared if it looks like alot)
1/2 oz of freshly ground pepper (again, don't be scared)

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Sprinkle the pork shoulder all over with salt and pepper. Put a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet, put the pork on it, then put it in the oven. Roast for 5 hours. Take it out, let it cool until you can handle it, then pull it apart with your fingers. EASY.

Just make sure you don't overcook the pork, as it will not pull apart as easy as you'd like it to. When you're done, serve with your sauces (which I'll post tomorrow) on split buns, with sauces and coleslaw. The perfect meal to please a crowd.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Flavored Iced Teas

Went out to lunch at Ruby Tuesdays yesterday with Steph and the in-laws, and they've got a list of like 40 or so different flavored iced teas. Steph ordered the pomegranate iced tea, which was out of this world.

So, to experiment, I bought a bottle of 100% organic pomegranate juice and we've mixed it with our standard fridge-brewed iced teas. 1 part pom juice, 4 parts iced tea and 1/2 an Equal. Delicious. Anybody have any other ideas?

Also, I'm apparently going to have people over on Sunday to watch the Jets game. Menu planning awaits...